County stormwater fee clears council

Public hearing set for Dec. 3

By ERIN COX, Staff Writer
The Capitol, Published November 20, 2007

The most stringent opponent of taxing all county residents and businesses to fix damaged streams and rivers voted last night to move forward with the plan. "I've been against this bill from the beginning," Councilman Ed Middlebrooks said, as he described a move that shocked political observers. "But if it's this important to you all, let's have a public hearing. Let's have the people out and hear what they have to say about a new tax."

He emphasized that he plans to vote against the tax in the end.

Mr. Middlebrooks provided the fourth vote needed to move the plan forward. It sets the stage for a public hearing Dec. 3 on the "all-payer" funding plan that is pushed by a trio of councilmen.

Although several hearings have been held on whether to create a dedicated fund to fix an estimated $1.3 billion backlog of damaged waterways, residents have not had an opportunity to give testimony on the idea to raise money by charging everyone.

"I think the public should have the right to weigh in on it," said Mr. Middlebrooks, R-Severn. "The tax has been discussed privately, but there hasn't been a public hearing on it."

Devised by Councilmen Ron Dillon, Josh Cohen and Jamie Benoit, the all-payer plan would charge each homeowner $30 a year and levy a fee on businesses on a sliding scale. The estimated $11 million in annual revenue raised by the fee would be funneled into a special fund to combat damage caused by improperly managed stormwater.

The water rushes into waterways, carrying sediment and pollutants into the Anne Arundel's 12 watersheds, all of which fail federal Clean Water Act standards.

Mr. Middlebrooks' vote effectively killed the competing funding plan of County Executive John R. Leopold, who brought forward the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries Fund, or SMART Fund in September. Mr. Leopold's plan would levy a fee only on new development.

Mr. Leopold said this morning he was "amazed" at Mr. Middlebrooks move, and that "I will fight against any remedy that increase property tax burden on Anne Arundel County residents."

Mr. Leopold, a Republican, said he would lobby for a way to revive his proposal, and that he promised voters in his campaign that he would not support an all-payer system to fix stormwater problems.

He declined to say whether his opposition would lead to a veto if the council passed his SMART fund with an all-payer funding system attached.

Supporters of the all-payer system said that although Mr. Middlebrooks's vote kept the plan alive, any fund dedicated to stormwater management may be a political dream.

"In a way, he made it less likely that either plan will pass,' said Mr. Cohen, D-Annapolis. 'There are still only three votes for the bill. ... The debate has shifted. It's no longer our amendment versus the County Executive's plan. Now it's our amendment versus nothing."

(Revised Nov 2007)